It's natural to head to a bar or club for live music, but sometimes you don't have to look any further than your own backyard. Concerts are thriving in living rooms, basements and, yes, backyards all over the Madison area. After a friend took me to my first house concert this past summer, I was hooked.
That concert was in the University Hill Farms neighborhood on the near west side. I'd been with my grandson all week and was ready for some child-free fun. While pulling up to the home of hosts Ryan and Elizabeth Wisniewski, I noticed small children drawing chalk people on the driveway. The backyard was full of young parents and toddlers. I wasn't sure if this was my scene.
Luckily, the performers were unfazed by the median age of the audience. Loves It, a quirky folk act made up of Jenny Parrott and Vaughn Walters, were visiting from Austin, Texas, but they seemed at home in these surroundings. They placed their CDs and branded beer koozies on the Wisniewskis' patio as kids ran, laughed and whined nearby. Soon they launched into two sets of songs that were both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Parrott's braided hair and Walters' Harley-style bandana helped give the duo's gorgeous twang-infused harmonies a country feel. I loved every minute of their performance.
The house-concert circuit can help musicians become better performers. As Parrott notes, it challenges them to adapt to their surroundings.
"Every house show is different," she explains. "Sometimes it's really formal; everyone sits down. Sometimes it's a party where people are just honky tonkin'. Sometimes it's a bunch of kids dancing."
Since cohost Ryan Wisniewski, a local photographer (and Isthmus contributor), took pictures of the musicians for a reduced fee, attendees weren't asked to drop donations into a hat. Hosting this concert fulfilled the Wisniewskis' longing for live music, something they don't often go out to see since they have three kids underfoot. So after seeing Loves It on Wisconsin Public Television's 30-Minute Music Hour, the couple invited the band to play at their house. As it turned out, Loves It were on tour in the Midwest.
Even if a band's tour van is headed to your neighborhood, handling the details of a house show -- seating, refreshments and promotion, for starters -- can be a lot of work. But the Wisniewskis say the experience is worth the effort.
"We'd love to make it an annual thing," Ryan says. "A house party steeped in lore, one that everyone wants to attend. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that excitement?"
The Wisniewskis hope to add a local band to the lineup for next year. There's been talk of having PHOX play, so the party list is bound to fill up fast.
Variations on a theme
Though house concerts are new to me, they've been happening in Madison since the 1970s, maybe even longer, according to Biff Blumfumgagnge of local rock luminaries the Gomers. Blumfumgagnge hasn't played a house concert in a while but remembers concerts he played at Gary's Co-op, the Nottingham Co-op and Phil's Frat House, which was just one guy's room in a house. The scene was a little different from that in the Wisniewskis' backyard but possibly a catalyst for what's out there now.
These days, you can find almost any genre of music at a house concert. DJs host pop-up discos at houses on Willy Street, and you can often find experimental noise shows at Shockrasonica, a residence on the 1200 block of East Mifflin Street. Homes in the suburbs are even hosting bands.
Last summer, music fans congregated four times behind two Middleton homes, one owned by Jenny and Lou Sanders, and the other by Deb Umstead and Brian Davis. These couples have been holding concerts since 2006, merging their yards to create an informal venue called Fairyland. Bands stand on a jointly owned hot-tub deck, under the twinkling lights of an ornate vintage chandelier. Up to 120 listeners sit in lawn chairs, dining on a potluck buffet and drinking from coolers.
Local Americana act Count This Penny performed at Fairyland with banjoist John Ray, who did a residency here before heading back to Texas recently. Band founders Amanda and Allen Rigell play fiddle and bass, and Amanda's wry, folksy storytelling gives the audience a look inside their music-making lifestyle, often in hilarious ways. The group's concert at this intimate venue was easily one of my most memorable summer events. Later in the summer, I watched Brandon Beebe there. After seeing him play in a local pub, the organizers invited the young folksinger to perform in Fairyland's magical atmosphere.
At Fairyland I also ran into Andy Moore, host of 30-Minute Music Hour (and an Isthmus columnist). At the time, he was planning his first house concert, in my very own neighborhood. I soon found myself in his garage listening to Drew Landry and Billy Finney, singer-songwriters from southwest Louisiana. Moore and some friends had made enough space for about 50 visitors and their potluck contributions. To create privacy, his wife, Peggy, hung a line of quilts between their property line and the sidewalk. This touch gave the event an Appalachian Hills vibe.
Moore says preparing for the event was labor intensive. It involved creating a guest list, carving out a physical space for the show, renting chairs, and then returning the house to its original state.
But he has no regrets.
"Peggy and I considered those aspects of the endeavor as examples of the most direct contribution to the arts one can make," he says.
Bringing out-of-state performers to your house is easiest when they're on tour nearby. Moore befriended Landry during trips to Louisiana to scout bands for east-side festivals such as La FÃte de Marquette. Landry soon asked Moore to line up a performance for him as he cut through Wisconsin on a Midwestern tour. Moore agreed but let too much time pass to book a local venue. Instead of canceling the gig, he hosted Landry at home.
"It's a pretty good guarantee of money for the musician," says Moore, who requested a $15 donation from each person at the Landry concert. "You can be booked at a huge venue and have 15 people come. But when your buddy says, 'This guy's the real deal,' or 'Get to know him over the course of the night in an intimate setting,' that sounds pretty good."
Moore's analysis of house concerts' benefits is spot-on, according to other hosts and attendees.
A three-time recipient of the Madison Area Music Association's Music Fan of the Year award, Sarah Warmke is a seasoned house-concert attendee. She says she loves this type of performance because it's "all about the music."
"There are no TVs, no talking, no drunks, no look-at-me dancers," she says. "The peeps that shell out the dough to go really want to be there to listen and learn and smile."
Though the house-concert crowds I've encountered have been well behaved, hosting this type of show isn't for the faint of heart. Backyard gigs can get rained out, living rooms can get doused in beer, and fans can flake out. The risk has to be worth the reward.
"I only book bands I love," says Kiki Schueler, one of the area's best-known house-concert hosts. The basement of her small ranch home on the far east side becomes Kiki's House of Righteous Music on concert nights. She's been holding house concerts there since 2004, after seeing Tim Easton and Ian Moore at a show with a sparse, disengaged crowd.
"You know what? Next time let's do it at my house," she told the musicians.
Now Schueler holds up to three concerts a month. She asks for a donation of $5 to $25, which all goes to the band.
Complete with an exit window for safety, Schueler's basement is like a civilized teen party where guests take their trash with them when they leave. Poster-covered walls promoting Schueler's favorite bands surround visitors sitting on a hodgepodge collection of chairs. Seating is first-come, first-served, and those without chairs stand under the stairwell.
Standing elbow-to-elbow in a basement, hugging an IPA while listening to R&B legend Andre Williams and his band, was surreal. He made his grand entrance on steps that look more likely to be traveled with a laundry basket than a mic. He thrilled the crowd with old-school blues and smutty garage-punk songs like "Jail Bait." His band, the Goldstars, were like a combination of Peter Noone and Elvis Costello. They were also tremendously friendly when I chatted with them in Schueler's kitchen.
At another concert in Schueler's basement, folksinger David Dondero charmed the audience with deftly delivered lyrics drawn from lonesome and sometimes loathsome experiences on the road. The California-based troubadour says he's played in venues ranging from "punk-rock dive houses" and convenience stores to schools and backyards. Schueler's basement is "the nicest house concert you can play," he says.
Schueler's dedication is impressive, to say the least.
"Everyone who plays here just plays at my house; that's the stop on their tour," she says. "Usually it's more lucrative for them. They take all of the money, and they don't have to pay a sound guy."
Plus, a lot of people won't go to a show in a stranger's basement unless they're really into the band that's playing.
Schueler agrees: "Everyone who comes to my house is there for the show."
She has no money in her pocket at the end of each concert, but you'd swear she just won a million bucks.
"I get to see my favorite musicians play at my house," she says.